‘Missing’ forests

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Releasing the India State of Forest Report (ISFR-2021) last month, the union government had proudly declared that the country’s forest and tree cover had risen by 2,261 sq km (0.3 per cent) in two years.

The report mentioned that 17 states/UTs had over 33 per cent of their geographical area under forest cover, even as Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav reaffirmed the government’s resolve to not only conserve forests quantitatively but also qualitatively enrich them.

However, an analysis by noted environmentalist Sunita Narain, Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (a not-for-profit public interest research and advocacy organisation), has shown that the real picture is far from rosy.

Narain has noticed a glaring discrepancy between what is officially recorded as forest area (77.53 million hectares) and the actual forest cover (51.66 million hectares) that exists on that recorded area.

According to her, 34 per cent of the area classified as forests — 25.87 million hectares — is conspicuous by its absence from the government’s assessment. She says the India State of Forest Report ‘does not explain what is happening to this huge tract of forest land — equal in size to the state of Uttar Pradesh.’

Undoubtedly, ISFR-2021 is an important document that is expected to guide policy-makers regarding decisions for the sustainable management of forest and tree resources in the country, but everything contained in it should not be treated or projected as the gospel truth by the government.

The findings of independent researchers should also be taken into account so as to accurately assess the green cover and do course correction, wherever required. The forest survey should strike a balance between ground-truthing and the use of satellite imagery for data collection and interpretation.

The Centrally sponsored National Mission for a Green India needs much better monitoring and implementation. It’s worrying that almost one-fifth of the funds released to states and UTs for carrying out afforestation activities under this mission have remained unutilised. There is no room for complacency when India’s priceless woodlands are at stake.